Keeping the faith

Thomas never doubted himself

Tim Thomas (20-5-4, 2.09 goals-against average) has been a No. 1 star this season. Tim Thomas (20-5-4, 2.09 goals-against average) has been a No. 1 star this season. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / January 25, 2009
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Everyone was there to see the Stanley Cup, run thumb and index finger over the engraved names, absorb the history, exult in the fine moment of that Vermont summer day.

Martin St. Louis, proud son of the University of Vermont, won the Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in June 2004, and weeks later the diminutive and clever winger brought it back to Catamount country for ex-teammates, former coaches, and college buddies to share in his excitement and accomplishment.

"I can remember it so clearly," recalled Pavel Navrat, one of the UVM defensemen during the school's glory years when St. Louis and Eric Perrin were the Martin and Lewis of Vermont's dazzling offense. "Really a great day . . . everyone was enjoying it."

The celebrants included Tim Thomas, the star goalie of those marvelous UVM squads in the mid-'90s. Navrat, who remains one of Thomas's closest pals, befriended the Davison, Mich., puck-stopper from their first days together at the Burlington campus in the autumn of 1993. They roomed together as sophomores. They shared their abundant victories, their occasional defeats, and they especially shared their dreams. Recently, following a Saturday Bruins matinee at the Garden, Thomas and his two daughters made tracks north to Portland, Maine, and the Thomas and Navrat clans engrossed themselves in a Sunday of snowmobiling and ice fishing. Navrat is in Montreal this weekend, watching Thomas participate in the NHL All-Star festivities for a second year in a row.

When St. Louis brought the Cup home to the party in Burlington, recalled Navrat, he couldn't help but keep his eyes on Thomas. His old buddy took it all in, and sincerely rejoiced in St. Louis's happiness. But Navrat also could see that Thomas, by then seven years along in pursuit of an NHL dream that he could never seem to catch, continued to stare at the Cup as if it mirrored something far more than his reflection.

"I know the guy," said the Czech-born Navrat, driving along Route 89 late Thursday night on his way to Montreal. "And I know exactly what he was thinking. You could see it in his eyes. I said to myself, 'Look at him, he thinks he can win this thing.' Did I ask him? No. But I didn't have to . . . I could just tell, all those years later . . . and I wish now I could put that in better words, but everyone was there, enjoying themselves, having a great time. And Timmy just had this look that said, 'This will be me.' "

For Thomas, now 34, that time finally may be at hand, some two decades after his parents hawked their wedding rings to come up with the money to send him to a goalie camp. Here at the All-Star break, the Bruins have 73 points, tops in the Eastern Conference and tied with the San Jose Sharks for No. 1 in the league standings. With Thomas again Boston's workhorse in net, and his somewhat eclectic style too often drawing more attention (read: criticism) than his skill and success, the spoked-B franchise is on pace to set a club record for points and looks poised to take a serious stab at winning its first Cup since 1972.

Named to the Eastern All-Star squad for a second straight year, Thomas has a record of 20-5-4, leads the league in save percentage (.934), and ranks fourth overall in goals-against average (2.09), a mere .04 behind the top spot held by Columbus rookie sensation Steve Mason. With 35 regular-season games to go, he has a shot at becoming the first Boston goalie to win 40 games since Pete Peeters won the Vezina Trophy with a 40-11-9 mark in 1982-83.

"Timmy is Timmy," noted Boston coach Claude Julien, who tonight will return to the home bench in Montreal, where he once was the Canadiens' coach, to direct the Eastern All-Stars. "He battles all the time, competes hard. He's a guy who doesn't know any other way."

Fire can't be stopped
Jake Thomas, today a youth minister in Mission, Texas, can vouch for that "battle" and "compete" part. Four years younger, and a proud booster of his big brother's accomplishments, Jake recalls how aggravated Tim would get even during shootarounds while killing hours at their uncle's used car lot in Flint. It was one thing if Jake scored, but altogether worse if their dad, Tim Sr., slammed the Nerf ball by the aspiring US Olympian guarding the imaginary crease between the Chevy and the Ford.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure he liked us to shoot at him, because he hated it when anyone scored," recalled Jake, whose work with the North Mission Church of Christ is headquartered some 10 miles from the US-Mexico border. "And when our dad scored, that was worse, you know, because he was older and never really played hockey."

Navrat saw much of the same in Burlington. In games, said Navrat, if the Catamounts weren't playing with enough fire or were haphazard in their end, their star goalie (a career 81-43-15 at UVM) sometimes would leave his net to initiate contact with opposing forwards.

"It was like he was saying, 'OK, if you guys aren't going to do it, then I'll do it,' " said Navrat, laughing at the recollection. "Pretty crazy."

During Catamount practices, just like in the used car lot back home, Thomas would be irate if that 3-inch-wide chunk of vulcanized rubber made its way past him.

"I'd score on him, and he'd come out of the net and chase me all over the ice," said Navrat, who today works for a company in Portland that manufactures golf simulators. "He'd be yelling, 'You'll never get enough time in a game to wind up your slap shot like that . . . no way!' "

All reminisicent of Thomas, version Boston 2009, known to whack his stick across the crossbar, or clean and jerk the net off its moorings, when beaten on an important goal. Every puck behind Thomas is an affront to his dignity.

For all his fire and desire, and for all his boundless success in Europe (Sweden and Finland), Thomas's first real NHL shot didn't come until some 18 months after staring at the Cup at the Vermont party. Even then, the shot nearly misfired, as it had in so many episodes in his circuitous route to the top.

Long road to top
When the Bruins summoned Thomas from Providence (AHL) in the thick of the 2005-06 season, amid the injuries and failures of Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen, he first had to clear waivers. The prevailing wisdom was that surely one of the league's 29 other clubs would put in a claim. The season approximately half gone, and Thomas then making the league minimum, he could have been pirated away by another club for only some $100,000 (claim price and wages included). Earlier in the season, in fact, the Bruins opted instead to call up Jordan Sigalet for fear that exposing Thomas to waivers would be the equal of deleting him from their roster.

"Both the coaches in Providence, Scott [Gordon] and [Rob] Murray were saying, 'Hey, you're on waivers, and we know someone is going to pick you up,' " recalled Thomas, sitting inside Toronto's Air Canada Centre last week, prior to recording his 93d career victory. "They were pretty sure. They told me that morning, and there was a matinee at the Garden that day in Boston, and they were so sure I'd be claimed that at first I just stayed in Providence. At the time I was hearing maybe the Islanders would take me, because I think [Rick] DiPietro was hurt. It was noon before I would clear. The game in Boston was 1 o'clock. Finally, it was getting close to noon, we'd heard nothing, and I figured, 'What the heck, better drive to Boston.' "

The claim never came. The little-known Yank with the unorthodox and scrambling style, despite attaining near rock-star status with his work in Finland, slipped through the cracks and ended up on Causeway Street. Playing on a club that just weeks later would see its general manager (Mike O'Connell) fired and its president (Harry Sinden) all but kicked to the curb by owner Jeremy Jacobs, he posted a 12-13-10 mark, with an impressive 2.77 GAA and a sizzling .917 save percentage.

One of the underlying ironies to the Bruins' massive overhaul was that O'Connell, as one of his last official deeds in office, signed Thomas to a three-year deal totaling a modest $3.3 million. It was that deal, which some viewed as whimsical if not misguided, that Sinden pointed to when announcing O'Connell's dismissal. The club felt it couldn't allow O'Connell to be signing players when the decision had been made to sack him as GM. Just shy of three years later, the question is, where would the franchise be if O'Connell hadn't signed Thomas?

"Yeah, I think that was referenced to when I was fired," said O'Connell, these days the director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings. "I heard people say, 'What, is he crazy, giving him that money?' But we looked at what he'd done in Europe, what his save percentage was during his time in Boston . . . and above all, hey, we'd had the luxury of seeing him, what he could do, how he stopped the puck. Based on that, what you saw, it was a no-brainer. People said those things because they weren't paying enough attention to what Tim did. But you know, it's all Tim. He did it, and I'm really happy. It's just a great, great story."

Story has sticking point
Now it's up to Peter Chiarelli, who succeeded O'Connell as GM, to figure a way to keep Thomas here. Chiarelli has been impressed by Thomas's work, although it took some time. After watching Thomas the first year of that three-year contract, Chiarelli made the deal with Minnesota for Manny Fernandez, and the GM stated that he envisioned Fernandez becoming the club's workhorse. A knee injury and subsequent surgery derailed that plan last season, and now Fernandez, though impressive at times, is at most a co-tenant in the Boston net.

"Over my time here, I see a guy who has calmed his game down," said Chiarelli, impressed by Thomas's results and competitiveness. "His style is his style. He's been a lot better, I think, in fitting his style to the team, instead of being in there thinking it's him against the world. He's still aggressive, but he's better by sometimes letting the puck come to him."

Waiting. Not something that comes easily to Thomas, in part because of the protracted time it took to prove that his work in Vermont wasn't a fluke, that his success overseas wasn't a function of some wacky European exchange rate, that even though Quebec made him the 217th pick in a 286-pick draft (1994), he had the goods and determination to play with the best in the world's No. 1 league.

"It all started for him with that 1980 US Olympic team," said Navrat, who was a 6-year-old in Prague and Thomas a 5-year-old in Davison when Mike Eruzione and his fellow Team USA ragamuffins won gold in Lake Placid. "He saw what Jim Craig did and that was it, he wanted to be a goalie. It started his dream."

Navrat figures his pal's story, though told time and time again, has too often missed the point or been too narrow. He hears terms like "journeyman" and "minor leaguer" attached to Thomas, and he wonders, somewhat like O'Connell, if anyone paid attention to his record, or the level of competition he faced. The talent, Navrat says, was always there. The greater issue was finally being offered a real NHL opportunity, and more to Thomas's credit, remaining determined all those years when offers didn't materialize or higher draft picks with fancier pedigrees were handed first, second, and third chances.

The Tim Thomas story, in Navrat's mind, really isn't how far his friend has come, or his talent, but rather the endurance he showed.

"What he loves, truly loves, is playing in the best league in the world and proving people wrong," said Navrat. "We all go through certain things in life, and we all have our dreams. But how many of us eventually say, 'Ah, I'm never going to make it,' and then a certain time comes and we just take a regular job and get on with our lives. You think about that . . . everyone has a dream at some point, to be an athlete, a singer, maybe a writer. But along the way, our dreams, we reason them out and get on with our lives. What impresses me most about the guy is that through it all he never gave up on that dream."

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